Bittersweet Symphonies:
An Interview with Mia Hansen-Løve
By Leonardo Goi

Mia Hansen-Løve’s cinema is one of disappearances and traces, of drifters fumbling for a sense of direction even as they cling to the things they leave behind. Of people thrust into the future, and hopelessly moored to the past. Her films can be lacerating in their depictions of life’s cruelties, but they’re never tragic, one-note dirges. They match grief with lightness, sorrow with hope, a balance that feels harmonious and unforced, and injects them with infectious resilience.

So it is for Sandra (Léa Seydoux), a thirty-something widow and single mother who ambles through Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning straddling two life-changing events: the encroaching death of her father (Pascal Greggory), a retired professor rapidly deteriorating from Benson’s syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease that led to his family placing him in a care home; and a budding romance with an old friend, married cosmochemist Clément (Melvil Poupaud).

The two narrative arcs do not overlap so much as collide and merge. As Sandra saunters across a sun-scorched, summery Paris—the city’s warmth and lambent glow beautifully captured by Denis Lenoir’s 35mm cinematography—One Fine Morning seesaws between moments of almost unspeakable loneliness and rebellious optimism. In a film so concerned with mortality, with the existence and survival of the soul, Hansen-Løve shows a keen interest in the way our presence can outlive us and radiate from the objects, sounds, and textures we once held close. The film’s most potent moments locate this metempsychosis in the books and music that defined Sandra’s father, and through which she’ll remember him. In one late scene, she tells her young daughter that his library is more her father than the person in the nursing home. In another, she pays him a visit at the hospital and plays a Schubert piece he loved, but he recoils in fear: the music is “too laden with memories.” Yet it’s still ricocheting around Sandra’s head as she hops on a bus, heading home, an invisible conduit—in a film that’s full of them—between the living and the dying.

Marion Monnier’s editing is itself a form of healing: scenes begin in medias res and flood into the next, finishing each other much like Sandra finishes her father’s tentative sentences. Watching One Fine Morning, one is left with the feeling of searching through a web of tunnels where memories and ghosts can travel freely, and life and death are parts of the same restless cycle.

One Fine Morning will screen this week at the New York Film Festival; following the film’s premiere in Cannes, I sat with Hansen-Løve to discuss her writing process, the role of books and music in the film, and her ongoing fascination with drifters.

Reverse Shot: I understand One Fine Morning was partly inspired by your father’s illness, and I was wondering how your writing unfolded here, especially as you wrestled with something so intimate and painful.

Mia Hansen-Løve: I’d been working on Bergman Island, which was a long process, because we shot it over the course of two years. I’d just finished the film; I wasn’t sure what I’d be writing about next. And this isn’t a film I wanted to write, but one I had to. To me, there are two types of films. Those you are happy to write, those that keep you excited, and you can’t wait to work on—you want to go there. Take Bergman Island: I wanted to go to Fårö, and I was excited about the whole project. Same thing with Eden. But there are films that I’m not as happy to write, and yet I just have to. Things to Come was one of them, and One Fine Morning is, too. To put it in a more brutal way: I needed to get rid of it!

RS: As in?

MHL: As in, I don’t mean that I didn’t care about the film, or that it is any less personal [than my previous works]. Come to think of it, it might even be more personal than them. But it was also much more painful. That’s what I felt when I went back to my desk and wondered what I’d write about; I realized there was no way out. I couldn’t move forward without dealing with what I’d been through over the past few years, when my father was sick. I know a lot of people go through these things, and it’s not that I think that what happened to our family is in any way exceptional. But it’s still painful. I wanted to flee from that pain, and now I wonder if shooting Bergman Island and going far away from home was my way of doing that. After that film wrapped, I felt as though it was time to confront that pain, to find meaning in it. I fear I’m only talking about the disease here, but actually the themes of rebirth and rediscovery of sensual love and passion are very much at the heart of the film. That’s what motivated me, as much as the desire to draw meaning from my father’s illness. I think there are two different impulses that fuel the film. There’s this weird sense of grief for someone who’s still alive, technically, but you also understand that you can live through opposite things at the same moment. Grief and sadness. Rebirth and happiness. All at the same time. I was trying to capture that duality, and I think that all my films, in different ways perhaps, deal with that. They are always about paradoxes and contradictions that define life as I see it. Life is never only about one thing.

RS: I’m happy to hear you mention Things to Come. I kept thinking of Isabelle Huppert’s character, and the women from The Father of My Children. It’s interesting how all your female characters, despite the traumas they must power through, are always so full of this stoic optimism, this unwavering belief that things will be fine in the end.

MHL: Yeah, it’s true! [laughs]. I noticed it myself. The fact that my female characters are more… how would you say tournées vers le future?

RS: Turned toward the future? More “receptive” to it, maybe?

MHL: Yes. More so than the men, anyway. The men of my films, if I were to generalize, tend to be more melancholic. And that makes me feel guilty! [laughs] It’s unfair, I know it is. Why should they always be so dark and self-destructive, while women are always gifted so much more optimism and strength? Honestly, it’s not something I do on purpose. It just happens, and I guess it has to do with my own family story, the way it has shaped me. Because the male figures in my family always seemed to struggle to overcome some kind of melancholy they inherited. Whereas the women always emanated a more positive energy. And I feel like I’m defined by both. That all my films try to express this two-fold dimension I grew up with.

RS: There’s this beautiful moment in the film when Sandra, looking at her father’s old library, says: “I feel closer to him around his books than when I’m around him.” I thought it was such a perceptive way to question our understanding of death, that we exist through the things we leave behind. And it also felt like a very powerful declaration of love to books themselves. I was wondering if you were reading anything in particular while working on the script, or if there was a book—or more than one—that watched over you as you wrote.

MHL: There was no one book, in particular, because I had my father’s entire library. I’ve received so many comments about the importance of books in the film, and that makes me so happy. Because when I wrote it, looking at this dimension you just mentioned was always crucial to me. I thought it was something that was very discreet in the film, but listening to people’s comments I get the impression that it’s far more prominent than I thought it’d be. And I truly believe in it—that’s what makes me so happy. I have an almost mystical belief in the possibility of a spiritual connection with the people who’ve gone through what they left behind. I think it’s something that The Father of My Children also speaks about—albeit in a very different way. Once the film producer commits suicide in that film, his daughter also tries to deal with his disappearance. And that too happens through objects—films, in this case. But the idea had always hovered above my projects. I mean, all of them, one way or another, deal with disappearances and the traces we leave behind. The question of the existence of the soul—does that even mean anything? And how can we feel it? How can we prove it? Do people survive their physical death? I mean, I’m not a croyante, a believer—or maybe I am, but a different kind. Maybe cinema is my only religion—my way to spiritually connect with the people I love.

RS: Can we talk a bit about your fascination with drifters?

MHL: Drifters?

RS: People who are a little lost, who may not have everything planned and try to figure things out as they go along.

MHL: Ah!

RS: I’m asking because I think that’s another big leitmotif in your work. All your characters—male or female—seem to be looking for some sense of direction, of peace, of meaning. They’re restless wanderers.

MHL: Well, the concept of “drifters” is one I can totally connect with. I think cinema today tends to be more and more conventional in the way scripts are written. You hear a lot about how characters need to go from one point to another, that they need to know exactly what they want in life… When I’d send my scripts to commissions, and we tried to look for money, I too often received negative feedback along those lines. My characters were drifters, to a fault. People complained that what they wanted wasn’t clear enough. But I think that for every person who knows exactly what they’re after in life there are countless others still out there looking for themselves, trying to find meaning. A lot of people are drifters. And to me, part of my freedom as a director and as a writer is to be able to portray characters who are not perfect heroes, and don’t know exactly where they’re going or what they should do. I’m just trying to be faithful to my feelings, to not adapt to what people expect you to write. I think it has to do with a certain vision of life. You said drifters, but I like to think of my characters as funambules—do you know the word?

RS: I think it’s tightrope walkers?

MHL: Yes! Because they walk and move forward, but you always have the feeling that they may fall any moment and that it’s all very fragile, they are very vulnerable. They may not slip in the end—women don’t, at least!—but they are still walking on a tightrope, spiritually speaking. You realize they could fall any second, and that’s the sense of fragility that runs through all my films.

RS: I was curious to hear about your relationship with music, and the role that plays in your films. It feels prominent in your work, which is remarkable considering you use it only sparingly.

MHL: And I don’t even work with film composers! So yeah, music might be prominent in my films, but you won’t find much of it, actually. I think it’s more the way I employ music. Since there’s no original score in my films, sometimes you can go on for 45 minutes without hearing music at all. But then, when it comes, you really do hear it. Often it’s just part of the scene, as in diegetic songs. This is a principle that’s always been there in all my films—save for Eden, obviously, which is a film about music. I don’t work with an original score but with preexisting songs. And I love using them because I think they bring their own history, their own soul. I actually like the fact that they were not made for the film. That’s why I could never get behind original soundtracks: they don’t have a history of their own, except the one that connects them to the film. And I like taking the world in, meaning also the world of the musicians and their own stories. It adds something else to the film. Another soul, somehow. When I start working on a new project, I usually have one, two, maybe three songs in mind already, which give me some kind of direction. They function as titles, in a way. They give me a melody, a sign of where I’m going.

RS: I recognized Schubert here, but I couldn’t quite place the piano pieces that keep surfacing through the film.

MHL: There was a couple of songs by Jan Johansson. I found them in a Bergman film, The Touch, which I love. I never do that, never use a song that was used in another film, especially one from such a great director. But The Touch isn’t Bergman’s most famous film. And yet it’s such an important one for me. I’ve watched it a lot, and realized I was haunted by the music, that I could really identify with it, in a weird way. So much so that when I started working on One Fine Morning I realized I needed those songs for the film. As for Schubert, I used him twice in previous films. I think he’s the only composer of classical music that I ever relied on. I use very few classical pieces in my films, and I think I’d only done it twice before: in Maya and Things to Come. It was Schubert; I guess he might be my favorite composer after all… [laughs]. There’s a kind of melancholy in his music that overwhelms me. But it also has to do with my own childhood, I guess. My father used to listen to Schubert a lot, and this particular piece—which I think was the fourth last Schubert ever wrote—it just… [smiles] it puts me back into my father’s world. [pauses] Which is what happens to Sandra, when she tries to have her father listen to Schubert with her, in the hospital, and he starts to hum along but then stops because it’s too painful, or at least he tries to say that. And she turns off the music, but we keep hearing it again while she’s on the bus, on her way home, as if part of her was still there with him… Only after she’s away from her father does she suddenly feel more connected to him, because she can shed that corporeal bond, and only the spiritual remains. I love this idea so much, and I’m glad I could get Schubert involved because, like the books, his music is a means to connect with my father, and to keep that bond intact.